“Hey, it’s Hannah. Hannah Baker.” I braced myself for the clichés to come as I settled into the Netflix adaptation of the teen novel, “13 Reasons Why” by Jay Asher. The highly-anticipated series’ release brought high praise with a rating of 9.2/10 from IMDb. Still, I was dubious. I wasn’t a big fan of the book and I wasn’t sure that the show would or could be able to tackle such a poignant topic for teens. I was wrong.
There are of course classic teen drama characters and plots in the show, but those archetypes exist in real high schools around the world, so we can’t really criticize the show for exaggerating or accurately portraying the cliché experience. The show goes much further than these clichés and delves into the repercussions of individual actions in the grand scheme of things while also tackling themes of sexual abuse and suicide. For anyone who hasn’t read the book, “13 Reasons Why” follows the events after the suicide of Hannah Baker who leaves tapes behind for the 13 people who contributed to her choice to commit suicide. The deal is that they listen to all the tapes and pass them on, lest they want their secrets to be known to the outside world. Established silence amongst those on the tapes is challenged when Clay, a friend and admirer of Hannah’s, does not handle the tapes or the guilt and grief that comes along with them well.
The show expands on the storyline of the book by following all the characters as they deal with the consequences of the tapes and the potential leakage of the information they hold. In the background is a looming court case that the Bakers have taken against the school for negligent action on the bullying that led to Hannah’s suicide. Focusing on each character in the aftermath of the suicide contributes to the show’s touching and realistic portrayal of grief and denial that everyone faces in the wake of tragedy. Moreover, the show goes on to analyze the consequences of these different reactions, especially when the people who express a variety of emotions on the spectrum are linked by guilt alone.
After going to a high school that faced two suicides and one failed attempt in the course of one year, I resonated with the show more than I would like to admit. I’ve seen the bullying in the hallways that kids like Hannah and Tyler go through. I’ve witnessed the guilt and shame that falls upon friends who didn’t recognize the signs, and I’ve felt that same guilt as I pass through a hallway that is missing a familiar face I used to smile at. This show gives us a voice. It gives victims a voice.
Like any other show, there are still mistakes and controversy. The traumatic scenes of sexual assault and Hannah’s suicide are prefaced with content warnings, but still disturb, shock and horrify viewers. Some reviewers believe that the whole show was dragged out and could have gotten to the point quicker. But by separating the stories and tapes into 13 different hour-long episodes, the creators were able to bring to life a more honest and accurate depiction of depression and the process that leads Hannah and others like her to choose suicide.
The real mistake would lie in devaluing a show like “13 Reasons Why” for a shortcoming when it can be seen as a bare platform to start harder conversations at school and the outside world alike. We certainly don’t have to agree with every decision or portrayal in the show, but we must start somewhere to educate viewers and readers alike to be more aware and to take action.